Collette is a hospitalière in Service St Jean Baptiste Service. She first came to Lourdes aged 10 with the Catholic Association, has been serving in the baths for the last 7 years and made her engagement earlier this month. She is a PhD student, researching human rights law with an interest in pro-life feminism and religious freedom.
“Go and drink at the Spring and wash yourself there”, this is what the Virgin Mary asked of Bernadette Soubirous on 25th February 1858. Lourdes water is not holy water. It is normal water. It has no thermal virtue or specific property. Lourdes water from the Spring became popular because of the miracles associated with it. The people who are cured either apply it or drink it. Bernadette Soubirous herself said: “This water is being taken as medicine… One must have faith, one must pray: this water would no virtue without faith!”
The Signs: Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes Website
Service St Jean Baptiste, it is a woman-only service which welcomes and accompanies pilgrims in making their act of faith in bathing in the waters of Lourdes. As it is a women’s service, this blog will focus on the experience of women working in this service at the baths/piscine and what to expect as a Stagiare there. However, through St Joseph Service (the men’s service) a men serve in the men’s section of the baths and out on the plateau, and a number of women from Notre Dame Service maintain a peaceful and prayerful atmosphere on the plateau (the front of the baths where people wait) and welcome the many pilgrims that come to make this act of faith.
I joined this service 7 years ago for my first stage, it was on the recommendation of an older Hospitalière who works in St Frai. She had explained the different services available for women and I was drawn to this one due largely to being able to accompany women in this important moment of their pilgrimage. She warned me that it would be hard work- physically, emotionally and spiritually. And that I was to do whatever I was told there, the ladies working there would take no messing around and if I stepped out of line I would be told in no uncertain terms. I thought she was a little over the top and as a 22 year old woman who knew everything there was to know about the world I thought I really need this lesson!! But I see she wanted me to know what I was signing up for and I appreciated her honest words as my service began.
So the day is typically split into two services, 830-11am and 130-4pm but this will vary depending on the number of pilgrims in Lourdes and the number of people available to work in the baths. Expect more pilgrims on big feast days and also mid week as lots of diocesan pilgrimages tend to bring their sick around this time.
We start to arrive from about 8.15am, sign in at the office and then go upstairs to get ready for the service. We leave all our stuff upstairs and put on a big blue apron to cover our clothes, the uniform is pretty simple here as long as its modest, soberish and safe (comfortable shoes) then anything goes plus the big apron covers it all anyway! We then head downstairs and take a seat by the baths and will pray the rosary before the shift starts. This is in a number of languages with a reflection for each mystery and I have to confess when I first started working in the baths, its the part I didn’t like. I do not do mornings and would rather have had the extra time in bed. Yet as the work began to unfold, I could see the non-negotiable necessity of this extended time of prayer- it really is a very calming peaceful experience and I find it really is ‘the fuel’ for a good shift as it really grounds everything we do in prayer.
At about 850am the bell rings, the rosary finishes and we line up in the corridor from top to bottom: titulaires (medallists), 5th, 4th, 3rd, 2nd, 1st years and then pilgrimage helpers. So find your year group and stand with them, this helps ensure when the teams are sorted there is a good spread of experiences. As we line up, announcements are made by those in charge about whats going on today etc and then we are sorted into teams- with a mix of experience and mix of languages. There are 10 baths plus a children’s bath. The children’s bath is sorted first, the lady asked to be in charge (we call her the madame others might use the term ‘chef du cabine’) is given a statue of Our Lady and awaits for her team to be selected. Once this is complete, the others baths are assigned. 10 ‘madames’ are chosen, usually based on their experience and sometimes language skills as well, and they are each given a statue of Our Lady which they kiss and place in their pocket as a mark of office/responsibility. Then the rest of the ladies are sorted by being given a number 1-10 (depending on how many baths are open as not all are open) and the helper will head off to her designated cabine, greet her madame (the lady in charge) usually with the french bise and then wait for the rest of the team to arrive. Once all of the teams have been assigned, we then kneel facing the bath and pray some more prayers invoking our patron saints, our Blessed Mother and praying for the Church and our Hospitalité. At their conclusion we kiss the ground; some say this is for Penance like St Bernadette did, some say for humility and some say to reverence the holy ground we stand on as we get to serve the Lord in each pilgrim that will pass through our bath that morning. We then stand up and wait for the Marian antiphon to be sung outside which means the service has begun- the Regina Caeli in easter tide or the Salve Regina in ordinary time.
The curtains are then shut and the lady in charge of your bath will let you know how she likes to work (normally with calm, a smile and lots of prayer). It is important to remember that for many people the visit to the baths is the highlight of their pilgrimage. Pilgrims travel a long way to be here (some this year as far away as Brazil, Peru, Hong Kong, Australia and more), they can wait a long time queuing to get into the baths and they are only in the cabine for a very short time. Therefore, as one very lovely responsable I worked with told us, we must make sure theses moments are perfect. We are there to help facilitate this act of faith, to accompany the women and for many women they will never have this opportunity again.
You are split into two teams of three and will rotate during the service. One team will be on one side of the curtain assisting ladies as the dress/undress and wait for their turn to bath. The modesty and privacy of each pilgrim is respected through the careful holding of a big blue cloak around them and the discretion of helpers. There are 8 chairs on this side of the bath: 4 on each side, with 2 on each side for ‘able-bodied’ pilgrims and then two left one each side for ‘malades’ who arrive on wheelchairs- so one seat for her and then one for her companion. Plus there is enough space in the middle to receive a ‘brancard’ aka a stretcher when women arrive on them, or specialised wheelchairs. It can get very tight on a busy day in the piscines and your job is to assist where necessary but also ‘disappear’ and be invisible at the same time, allowing women space to pray and prepare for their bath. The other team works on the other side of the curtain and here they pray with the woman as she offers her intentions and then assist her in taking this bath and in making her act of faith. It really is a most beautiful and privileged moment to stand and pray with the pilgrim. Before the pilgrims arrive there are normally a few moments for a quick lesson or ‘recyclage’ as it is called here and if you have any questions you can ask throughout the service, there is a lot of learning on the job. Lots of smiles go a very long way, with your team as well as your pilgrims.
9am The doors open and we serve the pilgrims, rotating service as the shift unfolds and your Madame (woman in charge) dictates.
11am You will hear the Regina Caeli/Salve sung outside and this marks the end of service (unless there is a second service working) and this finish time is variable depending on how busy the shift is.
You are then dismissed by the lady in charge of your bath and head off to lunch or for a much needed caffeine intake or both!
1.15pm Onwards We begin to arrive back at the baths for the afternoon service, signing in, putting our apron on and heading downstairs to pray again.
1.30pm. Again you find a seat downstairs in the baths and the rosary is usually prayed until the bell rings and this time you head outside to the plateau (the area in front of the baths where the pilgrims wait… just follow everyone else). Here we pray alongside the men working that afternoon and the pilgrims. Sometimes a priest or bishop will read from the gospel of the day and give a small reflection. We pray the Our Father in Latin which I love! A few Hail Marys are said in different languages, we receive a blessing if a priest is present and then turn to the statue of Mary and sing the Salve Regina before retreating inside after offering each other a sign of peace.
1.55pm. Once inside we line up like in the morning, we are assigned our teams for the service and head to our particular bath to receive our instructions from our responsable for the service.
2pm We begin to welcome and bath pilgrims
4pm. Service ends here, but this will depend on how busy it is and you could stay on a lot longer.
Depending on numbers of people working and also the number of pilgrims in Lourdes you maybe one working in split teams but this information will be given to you when you first arrive to do your service or will be announced during the week by those in charge of your service.
During your first four years of service in Lourdes you will attend formation, to help you grow in the message of Lourdes, to learn about the mission of HNDL and to grow in faith. There will be a timetable given to you for the week and there will be sometimes when you miss your service to attend your formation, but those in charge of your service will know this, so if you are down for formation say Monday afternoon, you head to the bureau instead of the baths.
For me, personally, I love the service in the baths- it can be a bit of culture shock working there, the hours can be long, the work is physically and emotionally demanding but the experience there is unparalleled. To accompany pilgrims in these moments is an incredible gift. I also feel it is a place where the gospel drama plays out before you in the 21st century- faith, trust, expectation, joy, prayer, salvation, healing, miracles and redemption. I hope from the pictures, you can also see a little of why I love this service: for as hard as we work, there is a lot of fun, joy and laughter in this service. There is a great sense of ‘sisterhood’ and I love being and serving with the strong and sassy women who make up this service: as I said on my last stage ‘I have found my tribe in Service St Jean Baptiste!’ And for as exhausting as some stages can be in the baths, I return home with a full heart and a desire to go back and do it all over again!